Ellie Sepúlveda and Abigail Humber at the Sportrock Climbing Center in Alexandria Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Ellie Sepúlveda operates on a different level than most of the members who come through the Sportrock Climbing Center in Alexandria. As one of the country’s top rock climbers in her age group, the 16-year-old from Fairfax Station often travels for youth and open division competitions and trains on the most difficult routes on the gym’s 60-plus-foot walls. 

Her needs don’t exactly match up with those of more casual climbers.

“Competition … it’s a very unique style that you don’t get to set in commercial settings because members don’t like it,” Sepúlveda explains. “It’s hard, it’s weird, it’s confusing.”

By February of next year, Sportrock in Alexandria plans to launch the Sportrock Performance Institute, a 9,000-square-foot bay with walls and practice space for advanced junior climbers like Sepúlveda. The company, which also has a location in Sterling, Virginia, envisions that there will be more climbers like her in the future, especially once the sport makes its debut at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. 

In 2016, the International Olympic Committee voted to include sport climbing and four other sports at the Tokyo games.

Local indoor climbing gyms like Sportrock and Earth Treks are preparing to capitalize on the expected wave of interest. In addition to building the new junior team-focused facility, Sportrock has hired Taylor Reed, an experienced elite youth climbing coach, to be the director of the performance institute.

“It’s made gyms want to invest more money into their junior team programs and to the level of their coaches,” Jeremy Hardin, Sportrock’s senior director, says of the Olympics effect. “Five to 10 years ago, you couldn’t be a rock climbing coach and make a living … but now there’s probably a dozen coaches out there making close to six figure salaries … Our junior team used to have maybe 30 kids total, and now we’re close to 200.”

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Earth Treks, which has several locations in the local area, including in Rockville and Crystal City, has revamped its youth programming “to increase the size of our youth competitive climbing teams starting this fall,” according to Janet Hirsh, Earth Treks’ regional director of instruction.

Sepúlveda learned how to climb at the Sportrock in Alexandria and started competing for the company’s youth teams around age 11. But at some point in recent years, she began training on her own due to her demanding schedule. Her father, René, hopes the performance institute will help give climbers like his daughter the individualized training that’s become the norm in high-level youth athletics.

Climbers like Sepúlveda and Abigail Humber, another advanced youth climber at Sportrock, didn’t grow up dreaming of competing in the Olympics. Until three years ago, it simply wasn’t an option, but the addition of the sport at the Summer Games has given them a tangible goal to work toward. Sepúlveda is eyeing the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

“I think without the Olympics, I wouldn’t have a pinpoint date for a goal so far in advance,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s changed my motivation. I’ve always been very self-motivated. I’m very content on doing better, whether that’s making nationals or making national teams, I’ve always wanted to get better and get to the next level. And the Olympics just provides another level to get to.”

In Tokyo, climbers will compete in sport climbing, a combination of three different disciplines: speed climbing, bouldering, and lead climbing. All will take place on artificial walls with colorful, synthetic holds, as is customary at competitions and indoor gyms.

Speed climbing, as the Olympics website explains, involves two climbers going up a standardized route on a 15-meter wall as quickly as possible. In bouldering, climbers attempt to ascend fixed routes on a 4-meter wall under a specific time without the assistance of a rope or harness, and in lead climbing, the athletes are required to climb as high as possible on an increasingly difficult, 15-meter-high wall in a fixed amount of time.

Elite climbers have been critical of the combined nature of the events at the Olympics. A new format that would separate speed climbing has been proposed for the 2024 Olympics.

“It’s like asking track athletes to run a marathon, do hurdles, and do 400-meter sprints, which is totally unfair to the athletes,” Sepúlveda says. “Bouldering and lead can be combined but speed individual athletes, they get kinda screwed in this situation. So I’m excited over the years to see climbing separate in the Olympics. It’s just not fair to the athletes to force them to do everything. I would like to do everything ’cause that’s me as a person, but some of the best people are the specialists.”

So far only one American climber, Colorado’s Brook Raboutou, has qualified for the 2020 Olympics. 

Part of the reason the United States is behind other countries in competitive climbing is because of the lack of gyms focused solely on youth climbing, says Jeff Shor, Sportrock’s youth programs coordinator. He believes climbers will begin to see more specialized training centers open in the future with the Olympics on the horizon.

“I think there was a push in the organization before the Olympics to really emphasize youth climbing,” Shor says, “but the Olympics has definitely been a catalyst. The performance institute we’re building, we are absolutely using the timeline of the Olympics to push the development of the program.”

Megan Lynch, a 21-year-old from Rockville who competed for Earth Treks and is a junior at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, agrees that access to training facilities makes a difference, especially at the international stage.

“It’s hard to say why, as a team, the Americans are a little behind the other advanced places like Japan and Slovenia … I definitely think they have a lot more training facilities, big teams, coaches,” says Lynch, who won the women’s bouldering competition at the 2018 World University Championships. “For us, when it became an Olympic thing, it’s kinda like, let’s make a facility, let’s try to get a team together to train more often. I think they’ve just had those things longer than we have.”

Both Sepúlveda, a rising junior, and Humber, a rising freshman, attend the George Washington University Online High School in order to fit in more time to climb. Sepúlveda says she trains in the gym for four to five hours a day, five days a week, and cross-trains on off-days. Humber is at the gym roughly five days a week, for five to six hours at a time. That comes out to between 25 and 30 hours a week.

It sounds, in many ways, like the lifestyle of potential Olympians.

“It’s a job for me, basically,” Sepúlveda says. “I made that shift last year. It’s no longer a hobby that I’m training for. This is a job. I need to be a professional about it and make sacrifices.”